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How Many Lives is Notre Dame Worth?

Barely a day after the fire that damaged the famous cathedral, France's wealthy had pledged more than $1 billion to repair it. If the rich can so easily give hundreds of millions to restore a building, they could just as easily have spent that money elsewhere in better ways.

PRINCETON – Just a little more than 24 hours after the fire that seriously damaged Notre-Dame de Paris, donations to rebuild the 850-year-old cathedral had passed 1 billion ($1.1 billion). Most of the money is coming from some of France’s wealthiest people. Untec, the national union representing construction economists in France, has indicated that the cost of the reconstruction is likely to be between €300 and €600 million, far less than the amount raised.

France’s gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters have already raised the obvious question: “What about the poor?” If the rich can so easily give hundreds of millions to restore a building, they could just as easily have spent that money elsewhere in better ways. They could have spent €1 billion to save lives. So let’s confront the awkward question: How many lives is restoring Notre Dame worth?

Many will say that such a comparison is impossible. But if no comparison can be made, then we cannot know what is best to do. If the answer we propose seems simplistic, it can at least serve as a starting point from which to develop a better one.

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